The Forever Prisoner 2021 Movie Review Poster Trailer Online
Abu Zubaydah has been a prisoner of the U.S. government since 2002. He was subject to “enhanced interrogation techniques” while at a CIA black site in Thailand, and eventually ended up in the infamous detention center in Guantanamo Bay. The U.S. believed him to be a confidant of Osama Bin Laden, and a key figure in planning the 9/11 attacks, although the latter doesn’t appear to be true. Documentation shows that he was sentenced, without trial, to be “incommunicado for the rest of his life,” and has never been charged with a crime, or permitted to challenge his incarceration.
This doesn’t sound particularly American, does it? Here’s how it happened, and I’ll spare the insane, enthralling amount of detail Gibney gives us in this film. He interviews key figures, ranging from Senate investigator Daniel J. Jones (played by Adam Driver in 2019 procedural/bio The Report) to creator of “enhanced interrogation techniques” James Mitchell to author and former FBI agent Ali Soufan. Some commentators say the U.S. “did stupid things” in the throes of the emotional response to 9/11, and one of them was to shift away from the FBI’s rapport-building interrogation techniques to the CIA’s use of flat-out torture – waterboarding, sleep deprivation, confinement, isolation, stress positions. There are more cruelties. If you were a semi-conscious adult over the last two decades, you could complete the list.
Gibney gets into the nitty-gritty of how guys like W. Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney and George Tenet were so intent on preventing future terrorist attacks, they authorized the use of torture tactics. You know how, if you need, say, a new roof on your house, you call a bunch of contractors to find one that’s affordable and accredited and competent? Well, forget that. Tenet just went with the first guy he talked to, Mitchell, a psychologist who created “enhanced interrogation techniques” used in “resistance training” for soldiers. He’d never actually interrogated a detainee before, but that didn’t stop him from making Zubaydah feel like he was drowning 83 times, which is only one of the many horrible things the prisoner endured. It’s crazy that Gibney got Mitchell to talk about this stuff on camera, although the director contextualizes the hell out of it, and everything else he tackles here, on a quest to condemn barbarism, to figure out how the definition of “patriotism” has changed, to show one of the many ways America no longer has the moral high ground.
Gibney’s one of the most productive and skilled political documentarians out there. With The Forever Prisoner, he gets well into the weeds, but don’t let that scare you; it only strengthens the conviction of his narrative. He quietly justifies yet another exploration of this well-trod, but worthy topic by landing in-depth interviews with Mitchell and Soufan, whose book The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda was heavily redacted until Gibney sued the government and got an uncensored version published. Their commentary feels dishy, revelatory – the type of stuff Gibney wouldn’t have gotten 14 years ago for Taxi to the Dark Side.
The film features several fascinating moments, among them an insinuation that Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-nominated film Zero Dark Thirty is essentially CIA propaganda, and how Zubaydah was tortured with a Red Hot Chili Peppers song played repeatedly at high volume. Gibney stirs up a lot of compelling ideas: About absolutism and idealism (apparently not everyone is “innocent until proven guilty”); how mental health is continually diminished in the modern world (Mitchell insists his techniques aren’t physically harmful, while others attest to Zubaydah’s PTSD); and our need to set aside the fact that Zubaydah is anti-American and a potentially dangerous enemy of the state, but nevertheless deserves a fair trial, and basic human rights. No one ever said standing on the high moral ground is easy.